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Prejudice against Jews

LAURENCE REES: So in essence what you’re saying is that given that the prejudice against Jews was so strong, any slight lessening of that prejudice then caused the people who were originally prosecuting that prejudice to use this as an excuse to subsequently create more prejudice. There is the most extraordinary kind of circularity to this?

OMER BARTOV: Yes, and it’s even more complicated. First of all, regarding the prejudice, if you talk about areas ruled by the Poles in the inter-war period, then that is Polish anti-Semitism. And they don’t want Jews to have official positions, they don’t want them to go to good schools and they don’t want them to serve within the administration, much less than they did under the Habsburg regime and under the Austrian empire before. The kind of anti-Semitism that you find among Ukrainians is also anti-Polish. So it’s not the same people, but the Germans and the Poles and the Ukrainians often share the idea that they don’t like so many Jews being there, but otherwise they see each other as enemies. But I should add two things to this.

First: it is known that many people who were among the collaborators with the Nazis were people who before that were collaborators for the Soviets, and the best way to cover your tracks was to move over to the other regime. Those would also be the people who would be most likely to say that they did it because the Jews had collaborated with the Soviets, but in fact it was them who were collaborating. So that’s an important thing to recall. The second point is that one has to think what options were open for Jewish populations living in Eastern Europe from the late 19th Century to the period that we’re talking about, to the Holocaust. What were they supposed to do with themselves? This is a period of nationalism, this is a period in which Polish, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Belorussians and so forth, want to have their own national state. Jews had several options here. They could become Jewish nationalists, which usually translated into Zionism, and go to Palestine. But there was no state, it was not easy to go there and it was not a great place to go to, but this was one option. Another option which Jews in very, very large numbers opted for, was to emigrate elsewhere, and most of them went to the United States. So you have vast numbers of Jews who moved to the United States and became American citizens. Another option was to assimilate into the local population, to become Polish or Ukrainian or Lithuanian and many Jews chose that, often trying to see if they could become Polish, learning both Polish and Hebrew; it’s quite an interesting phenomenon. But it was, as most Jews found out by the 1930s, not a welcome choice by the nations into which they were trying to assimilate. They were in the large part rejected. And so the last option that many Jews had, and many of the younger Jews chose, was socialism.

This was because they believed in socialist ideology which meant that you would create a nation in which ethnic and religious differences would not matter. And for them this was how there would be social justice. There would be no racism, no anti-Semitism and everybody would be appreciated according to their own merits and so forth. Now, was it a good choice? Well, we know that choosing the Soviet Union was not such a good choice. But at the time for many young Jews this seemed to be the right path. And I have to say I’ve been looking at Polish police files for the 1930s and they were very interested in Communist organisations, and the only place where you see Jews, Ukrainians and Poles together in one group as comrades is in these Communist cells that the Polish police are obviously after. That’s where they felt that their ethnic and religious differences didn’t matter. It was not a good choice in the long run, we know that, but I think that one has to remember that rather than a kind of defensive argument, what is true by and large is that most Jews were not Communists and the fact that there were young Jews who chose socialism made perfect sense at the time. And I could say about myself, I don’t know which one I would have chosen then, because there was some sort of notion of justice in socialism before one knew about the crimes of the Stalinist regime.